Circa ’21’s new “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” is everything you would expect and a little more, highlighted by an outstanding performance by its titular lead and a fun, raucous array of live music performances.
On the night I saw the show, by evening’s end the audience was on its feet clapping and singing along with the buoyant and brilliantly executed tunes, and I was right there with them. It’s a fun show of great energy and it’ll no doubt benefit from terrific word-of-mouth, judging by the glowing comments I overheard from patrons on opening weekend.
And those compliments are justified. Circa has done a terrific job with the show. The sets and costumes are wonderful, the music is top notch and the performances are all very good to brilliant, with the best being Dalen Gunn’s magnificent Buddy Holly.
Gunn is terrific at personifying the strange, awkward, child-like quirkiness of one of rock’s most singular stars. His Holly is not the charismatic firebrand that is often presented in the role. Nor should he be. Gunn’s Holly is nice, down-to-earth, volatile, stubborn and possessed of a creative certainty and unshakable uniqueness that truly seems to personify what Holly was really like, according to most biographies. Perhaps it’s because Gunn had never heard of Holly before taking the role, and as such his performance is steeped in research rather than colored by bias, but he really nails the part, not only musically but in terms of personality and character, and it’s extremely entertaining to watch.
As with so many shows of this nature, “Buddy” follows a rough outline of the entertainer’s career to act as a framework for his music. We’ve seen this done before to varying degrees of complexity and success in similar shows about Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, among others, and Holly is a star of similar magnitude deserving of such treatment.
Shows of this nature are generally of great appeal to two audiences: one, fans of the musician, and two, fans of music of the era. “Buddy” should greatly please both. It offers enough anecdotes on Holly’s life that fans should be happy with it and puts a heavy emphasis on the music and feel for the era, and captures it well, in order to satisfy fans of Holly and the era.
Personally, I would’ve preferred to see more narrative. What’s in the script is good, but to a music geek like me, it’s not quite enough. Holly was such an influential and intriguing figure in the rock canon – in many ways he was the first indie rock star, an obdurate, strange, stubborn and wildly creative character of stunning originality – that if I was writing the script I would’ve included more Holly scenes of greater depth and maybe chopped a couple of the non-Holly musical numbers. But that’s me. And it’s a pretty minor quibble. I tend to doubt most Holly fans or fans of the ’50s tunes are going to consider it.
Likewise, another minor quibble of mine is that some of the pacing in the first act seemed a little slow on the night I saw it, most noticeably in a scene detailing Holly’s meteoric rise. While the conceit of having the information presented by an array of DJs giving reports of his records soaring up the charts is a good one, there needs to be more energy and immediacy in the presentation of those reports, probably with the lines repeated and building to a fever pitch and talked over each other to give the audience the feel for the growing frenzy. But, again, as with my criticism of the script (which I’m offering in the spirit of being completely forthright and honest) these are likely things that the vast majority of the audience is probably not going to care about, to be quite frank. Your regular fan (read: 99 percent of the potential audience for the show) walking in for the night expecting to see a fun show with a lot of Buddy Holly music in it is probably not going to make much of the pacing being off in a particular scene.
That’s also because the performance numbers are extremely well staged and particularly in the second act they have the loose, buoyant feel one would expect of concerts in that time when rock ‘n’ roll was still fresh and unfettered by any expectation of artifice. The singers loved the music and were having fun actually getting to play it and the audience was just enjoying it. That’s the same feel you got at Circa watching this show and while that seems like a simple accomplishment, it’s not. Director/choreographer Ann Nieman does a great job presenting a vibrant tableau allowing that energy to flow and the musicians – Gunn, Tristan Tapscott (as drummer Jerry Allison), John Hays (as bassist Joe B. Mauldin), A.J. Haut (as the fourth Cricket), James Fairchild (as the Big Bopper) and Collin O’Connor (as Richie Valens) – play with a cool, naturalistic verve.
“Buddy” is a great night of music. If you’re a fan of the man or the music, in all likelihood you are going to hear good things about it. Believe them. Go see it. You’ll be saying the same things on the way out.